“Replying Too Quickly to Emails Is a Rotten Habit of Mine.”

Habits interview: Jennifer Senior.

I’ve long been a big fan of Jennifer Senior’s writing in New York magazine — for instance, she recently published a fascinating piece, To the Office, With Love: What Do We Give Up When We All Become Freedom-Seeking, Self-Determining, Autonomous Entrepreneurs? A Lot, Actually.

Jennifer has also written a terrific, thought-provoking book (which by the way has an absolutely brilliant title): All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. So many books tackle the question of how parents affect their children — but this book examines how children affect their parents.  Which they do, dramatically.

All Joy and No Fun just came out in paperback, so that seemed like a good time to ask Jennifer some questions about her habits.

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Jennifer: It can be really awkward to talk about this, but new parenthood, I’ve discovered, often derails our habits for a while. Even having young kids can do it. I hear this a lot from parents: I used to read/go to the gym every morning/cook Thai three nights a week before my kids came along. It feels vaguely heretical to discuss it, because if we admit as much, it sounds like we’re blaming our kids—My life was so swell before you came along! You’ve upended my life! But of course they’ve added something immeasurably huge to our lives. We’re psychotically, madly in love with them (and have never known this kind of love before); they give us a vectored sense of purpose. They’ve just left us a bit confused about how to reapportion our time. Three days ago, after giving a talk, I was chatting with this lovely woman who said, more or less: I haven’t read a single book since my kid was born. And I replied: And I haven’t gone swimming in over two months. (Her kid, at least, was two. Mine is seven.) I thought my evening swims were pretty well established in my life. But I swam at just the hour I now come home from work to make sure I see my son. My body just doesn’t seem to enjoy swimming at any other time of day. What I’ve discovered when talking to parents—at least of young kids—is that we all temporarily lose something. The trick is not to judge ourselves too harshly for it, and to have faith that it will come back, or at the very least to think imaginatively about ways to partially get it back. Partial may have to suffice for now. (You talk about this a lot in your work: Focus on making things *better,* not on total perfection.)

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I gained and lost a healthy habit, which stands out to me as both a sunshiny beacon of hope—I can do it!—and a grim little monument to my own failure (How on Earth did you let that slip away?) It was this: For one glorious year, I meditated. Every day, twice a day, twenty minutes each time. It was the. Greatest. Thing. Ever. My sleep improved in ways I’d dared not hope for, at least as an adult. I was less reactive around my kid. I had more perspective around adults. I had more energy. Less twingy-annoying aches and pains. I should also emphasize how weird it was that I meditated in the first place: If the human body is made up of quadrillions of molecules, about six of mine are prone to New Age solutions to everyday anxieties. You have to show me several thousand peer-reviewed Western medical journals before I start contemplating such a thing. The literature on meditation convinced me—meditation isn’t New Age anyway, but thousands of years old—but then I went and did something extremely counterproductive: I Googled my mantra. You are, needless to say, not supposed to do anything of the sort. It sounds like the kind of thing Larry David would do. No good can come of it, and no good did. Once I’d Googled, I’d crossed some invisible Rubicon, because I read just enough stuff about TM to make me feel queasy about it—even though it was helping me. Enormously. I mean, at that point, it truly shouldn’t have mattered. Yet it did.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Ooooh, I have an answer for this, though I warn you now: It’s very trivial. But you did ask for something simple, so here goes: I love making healthy smoothies in the morning. They’re virtue in a cup! If I do nothing right all day long, I have at least started my day with the soothing ritual of peeling ginger and stripping kale away from its veins and throwing flax seeds into a blender, as if I were tossing rice at bride. And then I drink the whole mess, which means I’ve had at least one healthy meal.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Yes. I tend to classify too many things in my mind as “urgent”—work in particular—which gets in the way of my ability to regularize activities that are healthier and more fun. (Exercise being a particularly good example: I somehow think, I can always swim tomorrow, but I’m so behind on this thing I have to write/research/reply to that I’d better do it NOW.) I think lots of parents do this, working mothers in particular. It takes a lot of discipline to remember that minute-to-minute stuff is just that, STUFF, not a crisis. As a corollary to this problem: I’d say that replying too quickly to emails is a rotten habit of mine. So is checking them too frequently. All of us do this, but because I’m not much of a dopamine fiend—I’m not a big drinker or gambler or anything-elser—this must be how I get my fix. (It does not help, I should add, that my desk is in my bedroom. For this, I blame New York City real estate. Our place doesn’t have enough rooms for me to have a separate office at home.) Many parents talk to me about this too—again, with great guilt. They feel like they’re scanning their emails when they should be hanging out with their kids. I think all of us would benefit from better habits around this stuff, but we have to forgive ourselves too. As Sherry Turkle from MIT likes to say, “Just because we’ve grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up.” We haven’t yet developed a set of norms about when to reply to emails. They also come intermittently, which, as we know from B.F. Skinner’s work with rats, is the single most satisfying reward schedule to our brains. It’s hard to resist checking our inboxes, knowing that something marvelous could appear in there at any time.

This said, I went on an email sabbatical this summer — by which I mean I stopped checking my email in the evenings and on weekends — and it was a revelation. Perfect in every way. I’m going to try to institute the evening rule again.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

An Obliger, no question. For better and for worse. [Readers, if you want to find out your own Tendency, the Quiz is here.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Interesting: I never thought of myself as a person with many habits. I don’t think I resist having them so much as fail to develop them in the first place, if you know what I mean. Some people are more reactive when it comes to life, particularly us Obligers—if something happens that we need to accommodate, we accommodate it. I’ve also never been a person who craved structure—I’m strikingly oblivious to pandemonium, and I’m perfectly delighted to keep things loose at all times (and this is probably good for parenting)—but I suspect habits would make me far happier, because I’m almost stupidly happy when someone supplies a routine for me. (And kids love routines. So that, too, is great for parenting.) It’s just not an Obliger’s instinct to actively seek one out, as you know.

Which of These Four Stories Do You Tell Yourself About Money?

Paul Sullivan wrote an interesting New York Times piece, Stressed by Money? Get on the Couch,  about people going through “financial therapy” to get a better grip on their emotions and behavior around money.

Certainly, from what I’ve seen, the relationships among money, happiness, and habits are extraordinarily complex.

Sullivan cites financial psychologist Brad Klontz for the notion that people have four basic “money scripts,” that is, stories that we tell ourselves about money. Which describes you?

money avoidance: people who try to distance themselves from money, and in doing so, often undermine their financial well-being (here’s a story about money avoidance that I’ve never forgotten,)

money worship: people who believe that if they had more money, it would solve all their problems

money status: people who tie their money to their self of well-being, “net worth = self worth.”

money vigilance: people who are cautious about spending and pay debts promptly; they’re the ones who may refuse to spend for no rational reason.

The article notes that these “scripts” often run through our heads outside our conscious awareness of them.

How about you? What script fits you best? Mine is money vigilance.  Perhaps that’s partly why I’m an under-buyer.

Do you think there are any “scripts” that weren’t listed?

Secret of Adulthood: You Know As Much As Most People

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

“I know as much as most people” is something that I remind myself when I’m confounded by an instruction manual, or by an app, or by some procedure I’m supposed to follow.

This Secret of Adulthood reminds me that if I can’t figure something out, I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. I remind myself, “I know as much as most people.” Maybe some people can figure it out, but I’m probably not alone in having some difficulty.

How about you? What are some of your Secrets of Adulthood?

Do You Feel a Pull Toward Work, or a Pull Toward Leisure?

One of my most important happiness commandments — okay, my most important happiness commandment — is to “Be Gretchen.”

I’m always trying to understand myself, and how I’m alike or different from other people.  (For instance, I ask myself these questions.)

I’ve started to think about a new distinction I think I may have discovered…not sure what to call it…it’s like an “inner drive toward work or leisure.”

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I feel an insistent pressure to work. If I’m not working, I feel a persistent, faint (or no so faint) pull back to my desk.

In Better Than Before, I describe several habits that I’ve acquired to help me stop working, like Quitting Time and my weekly afternoon adventure with my older daughter.

Nevertheless, though habits like those are helpful, I very often feel a slight uneasiness when I’m not working, even when the time is being used “usefully.” And this is true even though I absolutely value time that’s not being used “usefully.”

Intellectually, I embrace leisure, but still, I hear that “work, work, work” whisper in my brain.

That’s true for me; I think some people are the opposite. From talking to others, I think that some people feel that any time at “work” is somehow…less valuable. That work time should be kept as short as possible, so that there’s as much non-work time as possible.

I know people like this who are also very ambitious and driven. They want to work hard and well, and yet they do somehow feel that work isn’t quite “real life,” and they want to get back there as soon as they can.

This distinction just occurred to me, however…does it ring true for anyone else?  Do you feel an inner drive toward work, or an inner drive toward leisure?

Do You Have the Habit of Having Habits? Or Do You Fight Habits?

“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”

–Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

How do you feel about habits? Do you fight against them?

One thing that surprised me as I was writing Better Than Before is how much people differ in their attitude towards habits. I love habits and embrace them — perhaps that’s my Upholder nature — but I understand better, now, why other people dread and resist them. And although I love habits, I see more clearly now how they speed time and deaden experience.

Like technology, money, ambition, and caffeine, habit is a good servant but a bad master.